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Cat Marketplace: Start a Kitten Craze

Posted: June 15, 2012, 5:55 p.m. EDT


Items for younger cats are a growing segment in the feline marketplace.
By Kathleen M. Mangan

Though the kitten product segment is far smaller and less popular than the puppy product segment, many people in the industry state it has potential. Although some consumers—and retailers—have been slow to embrace kitten products, the trend is gaining ground.

“We will see more kitten products on the market,” said Kristie Hamilton, sales director for Imperial Cat in Morrilton, Ark. “Pet owners treat their cats as part of the family as much as dogs.”

The cat market follows the dog market, and the popularity of puppy products should indicate the future of kitten products, she added.

“As cat ownership continues to rise, there is a very good market for kitten products,” said Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association (APPA) in Greenwich, Conn.

Kitten food
Food is a big part of the kitten segment, and many manufacturers offer varieties designed specifically to nourish young cats while they grow. Sherri L. Collins/BowTie Inc. at PetStop Warehouse
Vetere expects new product development in convenience products that allow owners to leave kittens for longer periods of time. Interactive toys are another growth area for kitten products, he added.

“The toys are more sophisticated and entertaining with laser lights and movement. Kittens love them,” Vetere said.

In the future, kittens will have more items developed just for them, according to manufacturers.

“In the next three or four years we’ll see whole product lines for kittens,” said Daniel Overbeck, vice president of sales for Kong Co. in Golden, Colo.

Currently, Kong has two kitten toys, a mouse and a bear, the same size as Kong cat toys but in pastel colors. Overbeck reported that they are selling very well.

Appeal vs. Need
Companies will examine the cat market for brand extensions and will launch more kitten food and products, predicted Terri Grow, owner of PetSage, a retailer in Alexandria, Va.

One issue is that cat owners don’t spend as much money on kitten products, Grow said.

“Kitten owners spend just a third of what puppy owners spend in the store,” agreed April Wright, owner of The Dog and Cat, a retailer in Essex Junction, Vt.

Kitten product sales will probably stay at current levels because more people are adopting adult cats from shelters, noted Rochelle Hartigan, marketing director for OurPet’s Co. in Fairport Harbor, Ohio. The company’s Play-N-Squeak line of interactive kitten toys, launched in 2010, has sold well, she said. The toys light up, wobble, squeak and move. 

Two trends affect kitten toy development, Vetere said. Cat owners aren’t as motivated to buy toys as dog owners are because cats aren’t as interactive and responsive. Plus, cat owners often get a second cat to keep the first one company, he added, noting that 53 percent of cat owners have multiple cats.
 
“People assume that kittens will entertain themselves,” Grow said. “Kittens need mental activity and environmental enrichment just the same as adult cats.”

Industry Voices
What advice do you give retailers for selling/marketing kitten products?

“Create your market for the kitten segment. Look at how the puppy segment is presented. Consider how you can make buying for kittens different than buying for cats. Offer a kitten starter kit to make it easy for new owners. Look for affordable ways to promote kitten products, like in-store promotions and social marketing.”
Bob Vetere, president of American Pet Products Association (APPA) in Greenwich, Conn.

“Pull together a kitten product area with all the basics to make kitten adoption easy. Present a variety of toys to keep the kitten stimulated and exercise levels up.”
Rochelle Hartigan, marketing director for OurPet’s Co. in Fairport Harbor, Ohio

“Train your staff to cross-sell kitten products—if a customer is buying kitten food, recommend a kitten collar or a toy. Draw attention to kitten products with special displays. Our Li’l Pals kitten line display options include wraps, pegs and signage, and work in a variety of planograms.”
Patti Stout-Szanti, sales director for Coastal Pet Products in Alliance, Ohio

She added that the response to catnip doesn’t develop until kittens are 6 to 8 months old.

Nutritional Difference
Tomlinson’s Feed and Pets, with seven stores in the Austin, Texas, area, sells kitten food and kitten-cat combination food. Many customers owning both dogs and cats purchase premium dog food in the store but go to the grocery store for lower quality food for their cats, noted co-owner Renae Click.

“More consumer education on cat nutrition is needed. Cats have more digestive problems than dogs, but we hear a lot more about dog nutrition than cat nutrition,” Click said.

Dr. Dennis Jewell, Ph.D., fellow nutrition scientist for Hill’s Pet Nutrition in Topeka, Kan., helped develop the Life Stages philosophy behind the Science Diet line, which spans kittens to senior cats. The kitten formula was introduced in 1984.

“I strongly disagree with any nutritionist who says there is no difference between kitten and adult cat nutritional requirements,” he said. “The difference is quite well established, but there may be a lack of awareness.”

The Science Diet kitten formula has been updated in the past five years to reflect the latest research, Dr. Jewell said. It includes specific omega-3 and -6 fatty acids to enhance cognitive and neural development, an increase in antioxidant vitamins like vitamin E to enhance the immune system, and different minerals for a growing kitten, he said.

“Our vision of nutrition is about balance, including exactly what’s right for each life stage,” he stated, adding that the kitten food should be fed until the pet is 10 to 12 months old.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulations on requirements in kitten and cat food are in update mode as well, and Jewell sat on the review board. Current standards are based on a 1986 National Research Council document; new protocols will be built on a 2006 document, Jewell said. The new recommendations are in the comments stage, he said, noting that AAFCO presents minimum requirements, whereas Science Diet is formulated for optimum health.

Collars, Scratchers and Starter Kits
Sales of kitten collars and harnesses are on the upswing. Coastal Pet Products in Alliance, Ohio, launched its line of kitten restraints four years ago and doubled the line for 2012 based on demand, according to sales director Patti Stout-Szanti.

All Coastal kitten collars have a breakaway feature; Stout-Szanti noted that break strength for kittens differs from cats. She said that cats must be trained from a young age to wear a collar. Identification and a bell to warn birds are additional incentives for owners. Collars and harnesses are part of the Li’l Pals kitten line that includes toys, brushes and other items for kittens.

Scratchers are another important training item for kittens, said Imperial Cat’s Hamilton.
 
“You have to train kittens to scratch on an appropriate surface, otherwise they can shred furniture and end up in shelters,” she said.

Based on feedback from shelters, Imperial Cat launched the Happy Kitten Kit at Global Pet Expo this year in Orlando, Fla. Designed as a convenient starter kit, it includes a kitten-sized scratcher, toys, oat grass kit and more.

The entire cat product segment seems to be on the increase. Tomlinson’s Feed and Pets reported a 10 to 15 percent increase over last year. Many in the industry hope that the focus on cats will spill over into the kitten segment. 

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